Category Archives: Plants

Jack O’Lanterns

Two Jack O’ Lanterns (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Happy Halloween!   It’s the day for pumpkin Jack O’ Lanterns.  Did you know there’s a mushroom by the same name?

On my bird walk in late September we found these jack o’ lantern mushrooms near the Schenley Park golf course.

Jack O’Lantern mushroom, Schenley Park, 30 Sept 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

Jack O’ Lanterns (Omphalotus illudens) are common mushrooms east of the Rocky Mountains and are often found in urban settings.  Typical of their species, these were sprouting from an old stump.  Though they resemble edible chanterelles, jack o’ lanterns are poisonous and cause vomiting, cramps and diarrhea.  

Reference guides say that jack o’ lantern’s gills glow in the dark but this must be hard to see.  The Mushroom Expert says he’s wasted three hours of his life trying to see them glow without any success.

We found these mushrooms on 30 September and took a lot of photos. There were so many mushrooms!

On 1 October I walked past the stump and the mushrooms were gone.  Someone must have thought they were chanterelles, got greedy, took them all … and got sick.

Now that’s scary!

p.s.  It’s illegal to remove mushrooms from City parks, even for personal use.  Check the Western PA Mushroom Club’s Mushroom Picking Rules & Regulations in PA for places where it’s allowed.

(pumpkin photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original. mushroom photo by Kate St. John)

Gentian Gone To Seed

Bottle or closed gentian (Gentiana andrewsii) blooms in September in western Pennsylvania.  By the end of October it’s gone to seed.

In bloom this gentian’s tightly closed petals prevent most insects from reaching its nectar, though bumblebees can force their way in. 

Bottle gentian in bloom, September 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Carpenter bees take a shortcut. They drill a hole in the petals to access the pollen and nectar. Once there’s a hole, honeybees and other small insects use it, too.

When I found the faded gentian shown above, I plucked a dried flower to examine the seeds.  Aha!  The closed petals have two holes in them.  The seed pod also has two curled knobs at the top.

I pulled the knobs apart to reveal the seeds …

… and scattered them nearby. 

I hope they’ll become new gentians next year.

(photos by Kate St. John)

The Same Invasive

Porcelain-berry, intricate leaves, October 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

There are many varieties of porcelain-berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) in the Pittsburgh area.  Most have maple-shaped leaves (below), but I occasionally find the intricate leaves showcased above.

Porcelain-berry, maple-shaped leaves, October 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

No matter the variety, you can identify them in October by their porcelain-like berries.

Porcelain berry (photo by Jonathan Nadle)

Unfortunately, Ampelopsis is invasive. When you see Pittsburgh hillsides engulfed like this, it’s probably porcelain-berry.  This hill is along Pocusset in Schenley Park.

Porcelain-berry drapes a hillside in Schenley Park, September 2013 (photo by Kate St. John)

(photo of berries by Jonathan Nadle, all other photos by Kate St. John)

Annoying And Inspiring

Closeup of burdock seed pod (photo by Kate St. John)

Look closely at burdock seedpods (Arctium sp.) and you’ll find them covered in tiny hooks.  The hooks arc away from the ball-shaped bur, ready to latch onto a passing animal.

Burdock seed pod (photo by Kate St. John)

They also latch onto us!

Burdock burs stuck to a sweater (photo from the Plant Image Library on Flickr)

But that’s not the end of it.  When we try to remove the bur, it bursts open to release wind borne seeds.

Mature burdock seedpod, burst open (photo by Kate St. John)

Burdock is so annoying that it inspired the invention of Velcro. The man-made hooks are easiest to see after lots of use, shown below.

Learn more about the relationship between burdock and Velcro in this vintage article: Nature’s Velcro.

Closeup of the hooks on well used velcro (photo by Kate St. John)

(photo of burdock burs on a sweater from the Plant Image Library on Flickr; click on the caption to see the original. All other photos by Kate St. John)

Why Not To Clear Your Garden This Fall

Goldenrod gall with a woodpecker hole (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I’ll bet you have a gardening project planned this weekend or next. Here’s some time-saving advice:  Don’t clear your garden in the fall.

Why not?

  • Seeds on the old plants provide winter food for birds and animals.
  • Insects overwinter on plants in egg masses, cocoons and galls.  Birds eat those insects. 
  • The brush provides shelter for the birds.
  • You won’t have to mulch.
  • You’ll enjoy watching birds among the old plants.

The photo at top shows that an old goldenrod gall contained food for a woodpecker. He hammered a hole to get the bug.

On Throw Back Thursday, read more about this time saving plan in a 2010 article: Why Not to Clear Your Garden

p.s. The only downside I can think of is this: It’s hard to plant bulbs when the old stuff is in the way. 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

What’s a Peduncle?

Fuji apples (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s a puzzle. Don’t google it.  Look at the photos to arrive at an answer.

In botany: What is a peduncle?

We encounter peduncles every day though we don’t use the word much anymore.  Since 1950 the word has fallen out of common use and because it looks like pedophile+uncle the urban dictionary lists a raunchy meaning. But that’s not what it is.

Peduncle comes from ped (Latin for foot) plus -uncle (an Old French diminutive ending) so it literally means tiny foot.

Each photo on this page has at least one visible peduncle.  Can you find it?

Black raspberries (photo by Kate St. John)
Elderberries at Jennings, 4 Aug 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Elderberries at Jennings, 4 Aug 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Fruit of the ginkgo tree (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s a clue.  The number of peduncles in each photo above is:

  • Apples = 1
  • Black raspberries = 5 (three are hidden)
  • Elderberries = too many to count
  • Ginkgos = 9

Final clue: The photo below shows no fruit, but it has peduncles.

Fruit stems on a Sassafras Tree (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Still stumped?  Click here for the answer.

(photos from Kate St. John, Dianne Machesney and Wikimedia Commons. Click on the Wikimedia captions to see the originals.)

The Gall Tells All

Goldenrod gall (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In September the globes embedded in goldenrod stems are undergoing a special process.  The bug inside each one is getting ready for winter.

These ball-shaped galls are made by the larvae of the goldenrod gall fly. If you open a gall you’ll find the larva inside. You might accidentally slice the bug in half. (Eeewww!)

Goldenrod gall fly larva inside the gall (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Since the goldenrod gall fly uses only a couple of species for hosting its eggs, the gall helps you name the plant.  Goldenrods are notoriously difficult to identify but I’ve heard that in western PA most of the flies lay their eggs on Solidago canadensis

An adult female fly is shown below, much larger than real life. She’s slightly bigger than a housefly.


Goldenrod gall fly, adult female (Florida Division of Plant Industry , Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Bugwood.org)

In the spring she uses her sharp ovipositor to insert her eggs into goldenrod stems near the developing buds. When the eggs hatch, each larva chooses a place to rest and eat. Its saliva contains a chemical that induces the plant to grow a gall which becomes the larva’s food and shelter.

The larva molts twice and overwinters inside the gall, surviving even the coldest winters because it has “anti-freeze” in its body.

Goldenrod gall in winter (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

In September the larva prepares its exit strategy, even though that won’t happen until next spring.  It digs a narrow tunnel to the outside that doesn’t break the surface. Next spring when it becomes an adult, the fly will chew a hole in the outer cover to escape.

Not all of them make it. During the winter downy woodpeckers and chickadees probe the galls to eat the bugs.

Read more about the goldenrod gall fly at the University of Wisconsin Master Gardener Program.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Bugwood.org (click on linked captions to see the originals); winter goldenrod gall by Marcy Cunkelman)

Blue Beads In The Woods

Blue beads on clintonia, September 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

In September keep an eye out for blue beads in the woods.  Yellow Clintonia has gone to seed.

Clintonia borealis is native to the boreal forest but also grows in western Pennsylvania, especially in the Laurel Highlands.  I was surprised to find this one a few years ago in Moraine State Park.

If you find green beads, come back later for the beautiful blue.

Unripe bluebeads, starting to turn blue (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)